Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie house of memory: Vikings!

The rhythmic clapping resonates inside these walls, which are hard and glossy as coal: Come-on!Start-the-show!Come-on! Start-the-show! The screen is a dim page spread out before us, white and silent.The film has broken, or a bulb has burned out. It was difficult, even for us,old fans who've always been at the movies (haven't we?)to tell which before the darkness swept in. T. Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow.

Welcome to the movie house of memory. It is the Cameo, a favorite haunt: a place which still exists, if in a less pleasing configuration. The time span is 1964-1979-ish, though some dates will fall outside this span. I am there with my brother,mebbe some pals. Not all the films were seen at the Cameo: some were seen in lesser places,some in venues with an eerie link to life.A few, sadly, were not seen on the big screen at all. Place is important in memories,and I will establish the context of place and film.

Kids, noisy not unruly, boil through the entrance doors and descend on the concession stand in a lobby cleverly designed to look like a parlor. Home: more upscale than my home, but that is not important. Behind the ticket taker, through more doors, is where we want to be; in the dark, waiting for the asbestos curtain to part, darkness to cover us,and the vision on the screen to be revealed.The place reeks of popcorn, still a favorite smell. We settle in, middle of the row is good. The house lights dim, and the magic begins. It is 1964, and the feature is The Longships.

Directed by Jack Cardiff, one of the great cinematographers, it is a quest story. Richard Widmark, Viking, loses his ship and crew in a maelstrom, and is washed ashore more dead than alive. Byzantine monks find him and nurse him back to health. While there the monks are telling a story with tiny stones, mosaics.It is the story of the 'Voice of the World', a bell taller than three men and made of gold. Cut to a market in an unamed North African city. The authorities hear Rolfe (Widmark) telling the story of the bell, and he is taken to the chieftain, Sidney Poitier, island lilt still in his voice. It just so happens Aly Mansuh is obsessed with finding the bell. Rolfe escapes, washes up months later at home in Scandinavia, just in time for the festivities marking the delivery of the king's funeral ship, built by Rolfes's father. Oskar Homolka has a great time playing Krok, his father. Lionel Jeffries, another seasoned character actor, has a wee role, as does Gordon Jackson. Since Krok is now bust at the expense of making this very nice long ship for the king, his sons steal it and go to find the bell. Again, the ship gets wrecked in the maelstrom, though Rolfe's crew survives, only to be captured by Mansuh, still obsessed, again. The quest is on!

Heady stuff for a twelve year old boy. I must admit, as I have not seen it since that day in 1964, to renting it from Netflix to see how well it stood the test of time. Very well. The opening storm and wreck is done with models, according to my adult eye, and there are some plot dropouts (did Rolfe swim from N Africa to Scandinavia?). So what. Richard Widmark, whom I have never been a fan of, does an adequate job.Exotic climes, highly functional yet aesthetic naval architecture (you'll soon hear more about dragon ships), and a good story make up for the minimal shortcomings. Plus it has the cool Mare of Steel.

Here is an interesting coincidence: Jack Cardiff, director of this film, served as cinematographer on The Vikings (1958), which I have seen (on the big screen, probably at a drive in with my family), though obviously later than its release date.This title stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis ostensibly brothers, but really not, and Ernest Borgnine, cheerfully chewing the scenery as their father. I remember Borgnine jumping into a pit of ravening wolves or dogs, Saxons made him do it, and Douglas losing an eye to a bird attack. One of these days I will pay a return visit to this title.

Much to the Missus' dismay, I have made many return visits to the last Viking title, The 13th Warrior. Any time I get the old Ishmael knocking-hats-off-people-with-a-snowball feeling I pop this title into the dvd player.I saw this one at a megaplex;later,I bought the dvd, I was so en-tranced.Based on Michael Crichton's The Eaters of the Dead,it is a re-telling of a favorite of mine, Beowulf. Beowulf films are a sub-genre of Viking films, as Beowulf takes place in the transitional time of conversion from pagan to Christian. "This is the old way, you shall not see this again", a Norseman tells Ahmad Ibn Fahdlan, capably played by Antonio Banderas at the height of his action hero-dom, as they watch a late Norse king being burned on his ship. "Eben", as the band he now belongs to as the 13th warrior calls him, pledged to rid Hrothgar of his bane, the Wendela. Directed by John McTiernan, experienced and comfortable with the action genre, the film sticks closely to Crichton's story, twists and all. Very satisfactory.

The house lights come up and we shuffle to the door, images of longships and great deeds etched in our minds. After the matinee, we step blinking into the daylight of 'real' life. What did these films do for me? They piqued a lifelong interest in Northmen and their ships, and gave me some pleasant memories.

Next at the movie house of memory: Vincent Price in glorious black and white in The Last Man on Earth.


Barrett Bonden said...

Extra details about The Vikings. Tony Curtis has his hand cut off as a minor punishment and thereafter appears to have strangely imbalanced arms. Before jumping into the pit of ravening wolves (only wolves raven) EB insists that he has to have a sword in his right hand. The assumption is that the wolves win but there is no conclusive evidence as I recall. Perhaps we score it like the French: Match null.

The Crow said...

Which movie had the Viking's steel mare in it? I can't remember the title.

My insides turned outside and all my nerves felt on fire when that guy was forced down the mare. The memory gives me chills, still!

The Crow said...

Well, was The Longships, wasn't it?

Relucent Reader said...

BB: Thank you, good memory on Curtis and Borgnine.Borgnine still works occasionally, though in less exuberant roles.

Crow: Thank you for the comments, and yes 'twas in The Long Ships. The mare was shorter than I remembered, but hey, to a kid everything looks big I guess.